This morning got off to a happy start. I switched on the gadget as usual to behold the carnage of old wars and the prospect of new ones. There was yet another sickness bulletin on the sclerotic BBC. And the umpteenth statement of the blindingly obvious truth that the United Nations is not fit for purpose. But there, rising up over this slough of despond, were black and gold moving pictures of the total eclipse in Australia.
To say that these images were wonderful and awe-inspiring would be an abuse of the English language. We need some new clichés. But I looked and saw, and there was the dark disc of the usually Michelangelo-bright moon exactly covering the incandescent circle of the sun. And, in a second, a rim of startling light ran all around the moon’s circumference. If you were fortunate enough to be standing out in the Australian bush, you could see stars too. And I thought of Hopkins and his “little fire-folk sitting in the heavens.”
When judging books published in the 20th century, I award first prize for crassness to Fraser’s The Golden Bough for its rubbishing our overwhelming experiences of nature’s sublime visions. He speaks of how “the savage” was terrified by such as eclipses as by thunder and lightning – because he didn’t understand them. Now we know better of course. But Fraser talked rubbish. For a truly philosophical remark we turn to Wittgenstein who, having read Fraser and turned away nauseous, said, “Does he think we don’t still find these events mysterious and terrifying?”
To reduce our account of an eclipse to scientific jargon is as futile as trying to “explain” the Mona Lisa in terms of viscosity and Angstrom units. When we look at nature’s electrifying displays, we receive aesthetic shocks and rejoice in them.